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Islam in American Barrios & Prisons: Converts Reclaim Moorish Spain, Reject Church

[Image by SpearIt] [Image by SpearIt]

For those in the US typically designated as “Latino” or “Hispanic,” the historical legacy of Islam plays a role similar to that in the African-American context. As the term “Moor” was embraced by various African-American leaders to unite poor, disenfranchised blacks with the glory of Islam, the connection to Moorish Spain provides a powerful tool to re-imagine Latino identity. Converts learn that popular Latin American terms like ojala (“may God will”) derive from the Arabic allah and that their African ancestors used to chant “Allah, Allah, Allah,” which in Spain became “Ole, Ole, Ole.” Such connections offer evidence of Islam’s influence on Spanish pedigree, regardless of what etymologists might conclude. Like many African Americans, Latino converts reject the notion of “conversion” altogether and instead embrace the notion of “reversion” to denote not merely a turn to the faith, but a return. The importance of Moorish Spain, then, is of special relevance to both Latinos and African Americans for reclaiming their lost Muslim and African heritage. Islam can also become a foil to critique their previous affiliations with Christianity and a way of distancing themselves from the most recent Catholic church sex scandals. But more specifically and perhaps importantly, Islam provides African-American and Latino converts a way to reject the long history of Christian church associations with the missionary ventures in Africa and Latin America that were anything but holy. Thus, the very act of converting within a predominant Christian community might itself represent a radical proposition, and in some cases may facilitate the cultivation of extremism.

The case of Jose Padilla, who was arrested in 2002 and accused of plotting a “dirty bomb,” brought to the world stage an unfolding drama in the American religious landscape. Primarily, it provided a first-hand glimpse of conversion by one who was once a member of the Latin Kings. For Padilla, gang life led to prison, and prison to Islam, which eventually led him to jihad. His story raised questions about the role of prisons in conversion, radicalization and terror recruitment, including speculation as to whether he first found God behind bars. Since Padilla, there have been at least two other high-profile terrorism cases involving Latino converts—a seemingly disproportionate number considering the relatively tiny number of Latino Muslims in the United States. This makes the involvement of Latino radicals all the more intriguing and worthy of critical attention.

Reports and studies show that Latinos in America are indeed turning to Islam, with current estimates ranging from 25,000 to 100,000 in the United States. In general, obtaining an accurate census for Muslims in the United States has proved elusive, with figures ranging from two to eight million adults. The entire number of Latinos is thus an approximation at best. Islam first appeared in the barrios of the American Northeast in the early 1970s with converts entering Islam by affiliating with African American mosques or with the Nation of Islam. The question of Latino conversion to Islam seemingly indicates that Islam is making inroads, especially among jail and prison populations. US penitentiaries foster a major interface between Muslims, usually African-Americans and Latinos who, when combined, make up a disproportionate size of the population. In places like California and Texas, home to two of the largest incarceration operations in the world, the majority of inmates are Latinos.

No reliable statistics exist for the total number of Muslim prisoners held throughout American institutions of imprisonment. Nationwide it has been estimated that fifteen percent of the prison population is Muslim; elsewhere this has been quantified as roughly 300,000 - 350,000. At the federal level, the Office of the Inspector General has reported that approximately six percent of the 150,000 federal inmates seek Islamic services. Despite the lack of reliable figures, scholars, chaplains and some prison officials have claimed that Islam is the fastest growing religion behind bars, and one study revealed that at one particular research site, one-third of African-American males converted while incarcerated.

Islam’s appeal to Latinos is enhanced by the force of hip hop culture, and Islam’s success in prison is matched only by its influence in music. Islam is dubbed the “official religion” of hip hop, while Muslim rap artists have helped spawn “raptivists” and “blastmasters”; in turn, hip hop music has been like a loyal ambassador for the faith. For many young Americans, the music affords their first encounters with Islam and race politics. Although some listeners may not be aware of or interested in the religious underpinnings of the music, rap is an outlet that has brought Islamic themes and symbols to mainstream America. The most radical strains of this music, called “godcore” or “jihadi” rap offer some of the most militant voices of Islam in America, perhaps second only to those heard behind bars. Sometimes they are one in the same, like Latino rapper Immortal Technique, an ex-prisoner who represents the most hardened core of rappers on the underground circuit, “a suicide bomber strapped and ready to blow.”

For Latinos, as with African Americans, the influence of hip hop culture, and increasingly prisons, are common vehicles for spreading radical Islam. This point suggests that religious radicalism in the United States has a strong root in American culture itself. Although many would point to foreign influences as a primary culprit for Islamic radicalization, the evidence points to actors on the homefront. The case of Daniel Maldonado is illustrative. Maldonado was an outspoken convert who radicalized to the point of moving overseas to Egypt and plotting attacks in Somalia. For Maldonado, it was American culture and foreign policy that drove him to jihad, not the persuasion of foreigners. Such is the case of the Baltimore-based Antonio Martinez, aka Muhammad Hussain, who recently was charged with attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction: he did not have any solid foreign connections, rather, his radicalization was homegrown and, as some have charged, homecooked by FBI sting operations.

The weight of empirical data seems to suggest that foreign influences are not primary vehicles of religious radicalism in the United States. Rather, the catalyzing forces have to do with perceived systemic unfairness and oppression of Muslims at home and abroad. Although homegrown radicals may eventually seek to work with foreign interests in the name of Islam, they need little help from abroad to reach this point. For prisoners, the prison experience itself may serve as a radicalizing factor, and an inmate who serves as “imam” at his prison is a more likely suspect for igniting individuals than organizations abroad. Perhaps more than anything else, these cases, along with Padilla and others, reveal the United States as a producer and exporter of jihadists. Thus, although alarmist voices have raised red flags about the influence of foreign Islamic organizations, especially in prisons, the more likely threat is from indigenous influences, as the Kevin Lamar James case also exemplifies. For Latinos, conversion to Islam is already a radical posture when coming from a Catholic background. Thus, this demographic may provide a fertile field of a priori radical converts already dissatisfied, dismayed and disgruntled, some of whom can be cultivated to violent extremes. 

2 comments for "Islam in American Barrios & Prisons: Converts Reclaim Moorish Spain, Reject Church"


"The weight of empirical data seems to suggest that foreign influences are not primary vehicles of religious radicalism in the United States. Rather, the catalyzing forces have to do with perceived systemic unfairness and oppression of Muslims at home and abroad."

I would bet that it's not oppression of Muslims in the US in particular, but systematic racism--the mass-incarceration of African Americans, especially. Probably, people see the same economic, racial, and cultural hierarchies at work in this mass-incarceration that they see in hostility towards Muslims abroad and the exploitation of immigrants in the US.

Kaveh wrote on January 13, 2011 at 12:37 AM

"el" is probably from arabic. means "the" b oth languages.

just guessing wrote on January 18, 2011 at 01:22 PM

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